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Jobs Aren't Enough

Jobs Aren't Enough
Toward a New Economic Mobility for Low-Income Families

Roberta Rehner Iversen and Annie Laurie Armstrong

"Jobs Aren't Enough" say Roberta Rehner Iversen and Annie Laurie Armstrong. In this Q&A, the Temple University Press authors discuss how they came to make this critical statement.

In Jobs Aren't Enough, authors Roberta Rehner Iversen and Annie Laurie Armstrong followed 25 families for five years—through the economic boom of the late 1990s and the bust of the early years of the 21st century—to learn about low-income families who were trying to "get ahead" through work.

Q: Can you describe your methodology?
A: We followed the families in five cities—Philadelphia, St. Louis, Seattle, Milwaukee, and New Orleans. We sat in on the families' job training classes and day and overnight shifts at work. We spent time in their children's preschools and daycare centers. We also talked to at least 1,000 other people involved in these families' efforts to move ahead, such as school principals, pastors, and teachers.

Q: And what were your results?
A: We concluded that this country needs a completely new way of thinking about how families move ahead financially. We need a new national policy that will ensure greater economic mobility. Our book questions myths and assumptions about economic mobility—e.g., "Pull Yourself Up by Your Bootstraps"—that actually prevent low-income families from getting ahead.

Q: Hence your book's title—"Jobs Aren't Enough"?
A: Jobs are the expected way for families to get ahead financially. However, more and more two-parent, working families are poor, despite hard work and initiative. In reality, their struggles are due to factors beyond their control. We've seen seismic shifts in the socio-economic landscape over the past several decades. There have been huge changes in labor markets and companies. There have been enormous shifts in welfare policy with the focus now on quick employment instead of skills training. On top of that, many people face inadequate housing, poorly-funded schools, inadequate wages, or racial discrimination.

Q: Can you discuss some of the myths you demystify in your book?
A: "Initiative Gets You in the Door." This old saw assumes that education and work are available to everyone, but that [job seekers] only have to seize the opportunity. In reality, the education of entry-level workers doesn't match the needs of companies in the 21st century. "Hard Work Pays Off " assumes that firms have career ladders that enable workers to move up in responsibility and income. But that's not how most companies operate. Instead, globalization, downsizing, outsourcing, and flexible management decrease job security. And the expression "Pull Yourself Up By Your Bootstraps" overlooks nepotism and social contacts in business. Today's entry-level workers don't have these social resources. They might be young dropouts or parents or immigrants.

The families in our book showed grit, self-reliance, and perseverance. But their Horatio Alger-like big chance never came. That Alger message is too simplistic for today's complex world.

Q: Can you describe some characteristics of the families you followed?
A: In many ways, they are like millions of other American families. They want what almost all parents want—a good job, to earn enough to support a family, health insurance and other benefits, decent and safe housing, good schools for their children, enough food, assets and savings, and a little money leftover to enrich their children's lives. But these families also are very different from many other American families. In the richest large country in the world, they work full-time, year-round, but they still do not earn enough to support their families.

Q: What sort of jobs do they have?
A: More than half are in manufacturing, and another 44 percent are in the service sector. Over the course of our study, those numbers shifted with more people working in the service sector and fewer in manufacturing, which mirrors the national trend.

After five or more years of work, most of the parents have remained in or just above entry-level jobs with limited health insurance or training, and troubling safety practices.

Q: What recommendations do you make in your book that can help these people?
A: We say that jobs are important, but jobs aren't enough. Instead, there are four important social institutions in families' lives: first are workforce development programs, which encompass colleges, community colleges and a host of programs that train people; second are the firms for which people work; third are their children's schools; and last, public policies. These institutions play a big role in economic mobility, but instead of being interconnected, they operate separately. We need to build ties between these institutions that will benefit workers, firms, and communities.

Q: So, ultimately, what do you recommend to start solving this problem?
A: We need a new way of thinking about economic mobility. We need to find ways to even out the wage differentials in firms and resolve wage inequities. We need local, outside entities to bring together colleges and training institutions, policymakers, children's schools, individual job seekers, firms, and families. We need better strategies for retention and advancement, including financial literacy programs and tax credits. Families also need more support for health care, mental health, housing, childcare, children's education, and transportation.


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